Coaching Writers in the Small Group

Placing my toes on the free throw line, I took a deep breath and began to dribble.  One.  Two.  Three.  Last time.  Concentrate.  A hush had overtaken the gym, and I felt as if time stood still.  Suddenly, a gentle voice, emanating from my left, entered my ears.  “Elbow in,” came the voice.  It was my coach.  Elbow in, I repeated in my mind, not looking up yet.  “Use your legs,” came coach’s voice again.  Right, gotta use my legs, I thought.  Otherwise, I’ll never make this shot. Cradling the orange ball on my right palm,  I slowly bent my knees deeply, pulled my elbow in, raised and fixed my eyes on the rim in front of me. “Follow through,” coach said.  Right.  Then… up went the ball.

Those of us who have spent any time around sports are likely familiar with such a scene: athletes playing a sport while coaches coach them from the side.  Coaches of young players often offer tips, reminders, suggestions, and even orders from the sidelines in hopes of eliciting the best possible performance from the team.  As teachers of writing, we can borrow this structure in our small group settings.

Think of a small group like a small team you are coaching. Typically, a small group is comprised of maybe three to four writers who share a common goal.  After gathering a group of seventh graders together this week, I  reminded myself of an important intention I always try to bring to each small group I teach: Do not lower the volume of writing during the small group.  Although I always bring a teaching point and keep it in mind as I teach in small groups, it was necessary for me to remember that these writers do not need me to talk at them for eight or ten minutes.  Rather, like athletes who need to be playing the game in order to improve, my group of writers need to be writing while I coach them.  And so I began…

Begin by saying what you’ve noticed.  I started off by complimenting the seventh grade writers on something I had noticed about them as writers.  They were writing memoir, and I gushed a bit to them about them being the kinds of writers who exhibit courage and work to select topics that matter to them.  Note: whatever the strength of the writers in the group, I believe it is always important to acknowledge something they are doing well or almost doing well.  A mentor once told me, “If you want to light someone up, acknowledge them for something.”  By beginning our time with a compliment, I was trying to light my writers up from the inside.  I was also working to presence something that was going well for everyone, which is important for keeping energy up.

Teach.  This particular group of writers had been convened to stretch out important parts of their story.  Each of them brought drafts to the table, so I quickly taught them a strategy for doing this elaboration work in revision.  At the risk of adding time to the session, I shared with them part of an entry in my notebook that I felt exhibited the qualities of writing I would ask them to reach for themselves.  I wanted them to hear how the work they were reaching to do could sound, and I wasn’t sure the mentor texts we had been using really did the job in this regard.  Of course, I kept the mentor text close at hand, should I need or want to use it.

Get them working and coach in. After teaching and providing a quick example, I uttered the important words, “Okay, try that.”  All eyes moved to drafts, and, after a moment or two, I plunged into the coaching portion of the small group. The student’s here name has been changed:

Me:  Okay Maddie, what are you thinking?

Maddie:  Well, I’m thinking this part where I first enter the dance studio…that part needs to be stretched out more.  It’s an important part.

Me:  OkayWhat are you trying to show there? 

Maddie:  Well… I was super nervous.  I’d never been there before.

Me:  How could you write into that?  How could you show us how you were feeling as you entered the dance studio?

Maddie.  [Silence.]

Me:  Hmm, what do people do when they’re nervous?

Maddie: [Pause]. Bite their nails?

Me:  Okay, good!  How would that sound, if you were writing that down?

Maddie:  [Commenced composing a sentence about seeing a rusty bar in the studio and beginning to bite her nails.]

Me:  Great!  Then what?

Maddie:  I grabbed my mom’s hand.

Me:  Yes! Write that!  I’ll come back to you…

And I moved on to the next writer.  With each writer in the group, I worked to “coach from the side,” much the way my 8th grade basketball coach did while I attempted to shoot that free throw.  Across a relatively short amount of time, I worked to keep my coaching prompts and questions “lean,” allowing students to remain at the helm, directing the piece forward.  I avoided phrases like, “You need to capitalize that,” or, “That’s not spelled right” or “Put a period there.”  I avoided them not because they do not matter- of course grammar, conventions, and punctuation matter greatly in writing– but during this moment in time, I wanted to coach into skill and engagement.  With lots of compliments, I kept the focus on the teaching point.  And as I coached, each writer continued revising.

At times, writers in the group became unsure how to write something or apply the strategy.  During those moments, I invited them to “write it in the air”, asking them to say it as it “might sound if someone were reading it.”  Sometimes, one of them would say something brilliant, and I would burst forth with, “Write that down!”  A few of them needed me to repeat their own words back to them, which I think they found helpful.

Link.  After moving around the group and providing coaching, I called them back together.  Again, I complimented them and invited them to head back to their writing spots to continue revising independently.  I praised the work we had just completed, and reminded them to add this strategy to their growing repertoire of strategies.

Since it is important to keep some record of conferences and small groups, I pulled out the organizer I like to use and jotted down some notes while they hung fresh in my mind.  Here is a template I find helpful:

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Small Group Meetings – Teacher Notes for single sessions_Template

I honestly do not remember if I made that free throw back in eighth grade.  It is unlikely that I did, thinking back upon my skill level at the time.  But the coaching I received never left me.  As author and speaker Kate Roberts once said, it will probably not be our whole-class instruction that moves our writers.  It will be the work we do with them in conferences and small groups.  Targeted, lean, positive coaching can work wonders as we endeavor to do this critical work on teaching writing.  Would you agree?  We would love to hear from you!